John Esposito took the podium at Cubberley Auditorium last night, kicking off the second installment in the Islamic Awareness Series "Jihad to Reform." Targeting the issues of America's perception of Islam, the Georgetown professor of religion and international affairs aimed to complicate rather than simplify the definition of Islam.
"Dying for God? Suicide Terrorism and Militant Islam" was sponsored by the Muslim Student Awareness Network (MSAN) and the Islamic Society of Stanford University (ISSU), along with the Office of Religious Life.
According to Esposito, Islam manifested seemingly out of thin air into the consciousness of Americans in 2001. Prior to 9/11, Islam was an often ignored presence, despite its substantial number of believers.
The controversial topic of suicide bombing took center-stage for a part of the lecture. Suicide bombings are sometimes rationalized by Muslim extremists to be morally correct by the principle of Jihad.
"Jihad has multiple meanings," Esposito said." The most primary meaning is ‘struggle for God.'"
He reminded the audience, however, that Jihad can be interpreted in many ways. To some, Jihad is the struggle to remain devout and obedient to Islamic ethics. To others, it is a validation for warfare and to struggle against an oppressive force.
The term has gone through many transformations in use. Since the late 1980s, the growing trend of global Jihad has taken root. Some modern Islamic governments have no qualms calling on religion to motivate their interests and movements, whether positive or negative. Yet, he said, the same word can be applied to a Muslim activist group's efforts to create change for the betterment of its community's social and economic development.
"That kind of global jihad — we have to realize that there's both the good side and the bad side to that term," he said.
He also worried that the American public does not spend enough time critically questioning the motivations that prompt suicide bombings.
"People like the quick fix," he said, "People like to say it's not only the Muslim extremists, but it's Islam itself."
He further argued that America runs the risk of blaming a situation solely on religion, and such simplification does not give a full picture of the complex circumstances in the Middle East. He blamed political and economic grievances as the main source of agitation that spurs the Muslim extremist faction.
"The general American population, though educated, still [has] this misconception that Islam advocates the use of violence against civilians," said Sameena Usman, government relations representative for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in San Francisco, who attended the talk. "I think it's really important for speakers like Esposito to explain the important economic and political issues."